If you find yourself repeating certain functions in Illustrator, or find you’re longing for a keyboard shortcut that doesn’t seem to exist, then it’s well worth getting to grips with the Actions panel.
Here’s a quick guide to get you up and running with the basics (Adobe’s online help documentation has more detailed information on all the functions available).
An Action is a function, or series of functions, that can be ‘played back’ once recorded. This might be a simple command like scaling an object by 125%, or could be a document level process, such as exporting to a specific file format, that you might apply to a batch of files.
The screenshot below shows the Default Actions, grouped as a set, that load as standard when Illustrator is launched. The currently selected Action is highlighted and, when expanded, we can see the commands contained within the Action – the example Action below sets the Transparency of any selected object(s) to 60%. At the bottom of the panel we have icons for Stop, Record, Play, New Set, New Action and Delete.
When we record a command that uses a dialogue box the values we initially input will be recorded. If I record an Action that features a 30° rotation this is the value that is applied when the Action is played back. However, we have the option to make these values editable each time the Action is applied. The second column to the left of the Action panel is the Modal Control – click here to toggle on/off. When this is on the dialogue box will be displayed when the Action is played back allowing us to change the values being applied at a given step in the Action.
The Modal Control can be applied to the whole Action, or individual commands within the Action. The first column is used to include/exclude commands within an Action, or Actions within a Set. This allows you to easily disable a command without having to delete it – again this is a simple toggle on/off.
Let’s start by making a New Set to keep our custom Actions together – click on the folder icon at the bottom of the Actions panel then enter a name in the text field.
Now click on the New Action icon. We now have options to name the action, choose the set the action is stored in, assign a highlight colour, and most useful is the option to assign a keyboard shortcut based on Function Keys with modifier keys if needed. These options can also be assigned/edited after the Action is created.
When we hit Record you’ll see the Record icon at the bottom of the Action Panel is now red and as we start to edit and transform objects on the page the Action will capture these edits.
So, our 110% scale is captured, with Scale Strokes & Effects included, Copy set to No and we have a Function Key assigned. Notice the Record icon is still red – we can chose to stop here or continue editing if we are building a more complex Action.
It’s also possible to add further steps to an Action after it’s created. Simply click into the Action, select the command you want to continue from and hit record – any edits made will be added after the selected command.
Another useful feature is the ability to duplicate Actions making it quick and easy to create variations of similar tasks. In our current example we have a simple Action that increases scale by 10%. Pairing this with an Action to decrease by 10% would make sense and also gives us easy object scaling using quick keys, something Illustrator doesn’t have by default.
With our Action selected go to the Panel Menu icon and select ‘Duplicate’ from the drop-down menu.
Now select the ‘Action Options’ for our duplicate Action – here we can change the name and assign a Function Key and click OK.
Because our Action already includes a ‘Scale’ command we can edit the parameters by simply double-clicking on the command to call up the Scale dialogue – for this to work we need to have an object selected. We can now change our scale factor to 90% and click OK.
We now have a simple scaling tool, that can be accessed via quick-keys, allowing single or multiple objects to be scaled uniformly without the need to access any menus. You also have the option to switch to ‘Button Mode’ which simplifies the Action panel down to clickable buttons whilst removing the additional controls. For the sake of clarity I’ve removed the other Actions and assigned a Red highlight colour to our custom Actions in the screenshot below.
Once you’ve built up a library of custom Actions, Button mode gives you quick access to your own customized tool palette. And you can easily swap back to standard mode when adding new Actions or editing existing ones.
So, if you find Illustrator is lacking an easy way to accomplish tasks you regularly have a need for, it’s time to roll your sleeves up and start building a set Actions tailored to your workflow.